Thursday, December 7th
"Really, I'm torn. Popovers certainly have better targeting potential, but the joy of cutting into a Yorkshire pudding is pretty much unparalleled." Clint said with a shrug.
"Do one for the family, the other for us?" Natasha suggested.
"Oh, I know I'm doing both for us." Clint answered. "Otherwise we'll run out halfway through. The question's really for Phil's family."
"I suspect Mom would really, really prefer we not have a food fight." Phil answered.
"Altitude." Bruce pointed out. "Have you ever actually made them at sea level?"
"Hmm." Clint said. "I have not. I shall have to locate a kitchen at sea level."
The 10 foot tall, live Christmas tree in the living room rustled and shook.
"Sam, what are you up to?" Steve called across from where he sat at the table.
The young mother chattered and tapped against the tree. Jarvis translated "I think I saw Moxie climbing this way."
"Hell." Steve pushed back from the table and headed for the whelping box under the Habitrail's terminus in the living room. He did a head-count: four badger kits. Moxie, indeed, was missing from the box.
"Need some help?" Phil asked as Steve buried his head and torso inside the tree.
"She's been batting at the lights all day. I thought she'd conked out after dinner…" There was an indignant-sounding squeak, and then the Halleluiah Chorus from The Messiah blasted out from under the tree.
Steve squawked. "Jesus, what the hell's that?" He emerged from the tree, a foot planted firmly on the tree skirt, Moxie cradled in one hand.
"Handel." Clint answered.
"I noticed." Steve answered. "But why is it spewing out of the tree skirt?" Moxie chirped from the hand that held her. "Oh, please. You do too know better." He opened the Habitrail lid over the whelping box, settled the kit back into the nest with her siblings. "And it's past your bedtime."
"Look out, kid, Dad sounds like he's going to ground you." Tony said.
"And Rusty." Steve replied. "I can see how the latch got opened."
"And this eliminates Sam as a suspect how?" Tony asked, leaning back in his chair and looking over into the living room. "And it's a musical tree skirt."
"Sam doesn't usually lock the latch back after herself. She likes being able to get back to the kits."
"You said it was all right if we explored," Sam tapped and Jarvis translated.
"Yes, but that wasn't intended to include the Christmas tree." Steve looked at Sam, exasperated as she proceeded to climb him and perch on his shoulder.
"It's a tree. We're badgers. What do you expect?"
Caroline watched the entire discussion, pushed her sweater arm up and pinched herself. "Ow. Does that count for proof of consciousness?"
Natasha smacked her on the back of her head.
"Ow." Caroline repeated. She rubbed the back of her head and said, "Okay, that certainly does. Thank you."
"Musical tree skirt?" Steve sat back down at the table, Sam riding his shoulder.
"It was the only one they had left." Natasha explained. "Which is kind of alarming, given it's only the first week of December."
The tree skirt began singing "The Christmas Can-Can."
"It's not wrong." Phil said. "I'm just glad you found that Furby for Sarah. Her mother told me…"
"Sarah's mother." Clint said thoughtfully. "That's your older…?"
"Younger." Phil corrected.
"Sister, Amy. And Sarah just turned six this past summer."
"Correct. And what she wanted most is a Furby. And Amy says there's not a single one to be found in the metropolitan Boston area."
"I'm kind of surprised," Tony said. "Usually you plan better for the Christmas crush of retail. That's what the logistics department is for."
"We always plan better for such things at SHIELD." Phil said smugly.
"True. I got my requests into the Nuremberg office four weeks ago." Caroline said.
"What were you getting from the Nuremburg office?" Pepper asked.
"Lebküchen tins." Caroline answered.
"For what?" Clint asked.
Caroline smiled rather than answer.
The banishment of the tree skirt was first suggested after it spat out "Baby it's Cold Outside," and Tony and Clint got into a dispute over what the cocktail in the line 'hey, what's in this drink?' was. Tony supported the Irish coffee school, while Clint was a strong proponent of spiked eggnog. The argument had started to get heated when Natasha settled it pointing out that the misogyny of the carol was not helped by the implication that the tenor was feeding the soprano roofies.
The next day, Rusty landed on the skirt from halfway up the tree five times in two minutes, triggering differing carol fragments each time. Phil, attempting to put batteries into the Furby, had dropped both the magnifier and the screwdriver each time, and one of the near-microscopic screws twice. By the time BirdFish had deployed its magnet to retrieve the screw, Phil was muttering "assault and batteries not included, more like it." Bruce, jarred out of the journal article he was trying to read, had verdantly suggested that the tree skirt should be relocated.
With a catapult.
"Never got a chance to do pumpkin chunkin'," Tony mused, glaring at the Furby he'd gently taken away from Phil.
"Pumpkin chunking?" Steve asked, removing the batteries from the skirt and folding it up. "Like the special the Mythbusters did at Thanksgiving?"
"Yep. Probably wouldn't be fair to enter now. Unless there's a pro division."
"Or budget constraints." Bruce said. "You got the kids entered for Odyssey, yes?"
"Pepper's new PA made sure the paperwork was timely filed." Tony answered. "My God, this is complete crap. I wonder if I should…"
"NO." Steve, Phil and Bruce chorused.
"You didn't even know what I was going to suggest."
"Yes, we do." Phil answered. "You were going to suggest buying the company out."
"So that you could make something better." Bruce added, starting to sketch out the math for the article he was reading.
"And sell it for less. Or more. Or add lasers." Steve finished.
"C'mon, lasers are always a good idea." Tony got the battery case open, slid the batteries in, and replaced the cover.
"Not on children's toys, they're not." Steve said, sliding behind Tony. He tipped Tony's face up and kissed him. "Besides. You promised accounting that you'd hold off on any new companies until after the first of the year."
Tony put the Furby back in its box and turned in the kitchen seat to kiss Steve back. "Got something to distract me with, then?"
"I'll think of something." Steve tugged Tony out of his chair and toward their room.
Rusty landed on the now power-less tree skirt. He pushed his paws around, then tapped on the wall, "why isn't it singing any more?"
"Sorry, kid, it was driving the humans nuts." Tony called back as Steve closed their door.
Rusty looked at Phil. "There are nuts?" he tapped.
"Mixed ones. Living on various levels of this building." Phil muttered. He got up from the table and got Rusty a bowl of boiled peanuts. "Here you go."
"Thank you." Rusty tapped, and started devouring.
"You're welcome." Phil said, sat back down at the table, and banged his head into the table.
"Problem?" Bruce asked.
"Just wondering how my life got to the point that exchanging pleasantries with a talking badger is the least strange things I've done today."
"And the strangest?"
"Explaining WalMart to Heimdall."
"That is strange."
"You have no idea."
Friday, December 21st
"Merry Christmas from Chiron Beta Prime." Phil said from outside Caroline's door.
She disengaged the alarm, opened the door, and looked at Clint.
"All seeing eyes read the heart." He held up a bag from the bagel bakery. "And we brought bagels."
"Well, then, do, please, come in." She stepped back.
Phil handed her an envelope as he stepped in. "Got a go-bag?"
"In the hall closet…" Caroline answered, taking the envelope and opening it. Clint slid past her and reached into the closet. "The pleasure of your company is requested and required at the Stark Estate through the 27th. Warm regards, Dir. Fury. Cute. I'm on warrants." Phil handed her a second envelope. She opened it and read its contents: "No, you're not, Happy Christmas, Robbie. Who'd she sucker into it?"
"Alan Gates." Phil answered. "Apparently the DA had already slated him to be on call for the weekend, so he volunteered."
"He would." Caroline muttered. "Give me ten minutes. There's coffee in the kitchen." She loaded a hockey bag with the Christmas presents and her personal gear, pulled a bra on under her T-shirt and a sweatshirt over. She buried herself in her tablet on the ride out to the estate, letting Phil and Clint's conversation wash over her.
When they'd arrived at the estate, Caroline had pulled her gear out of the back of the SUV, brushing off the offer of aid from Steve, politely asked Jarvis for directions to a free guest room, and stalked off.
On Long Island, Andrew Hunt had been tasked with badger sitting while recovering from the aftereffects of exposure Roundup Ready cotton mistakenly spayed with an aerosolized alkali aquaadhesion. The mistake came to light when shirts made from the cotton were used at a charity Thanksgiving wet t-shirt contest. The shirts fused to the contestants' skin – and then the contestants to one another.
The experience had resulted in five proposals, four unusually large bills for data usage on the women's cell phones, and, over the course of 72 hours, two restraining orders. The incident's topper had been a pigeon stuck to the tree it had been roosting in after it picked up a scrap of a shirt to use for its nest. Andrew had been tasked with rescuing the pigeon.
The pigeon had not appreciated his efforts and attacked Andrew, leaving him with pecks and cuts on his face and hands, and scratching his cornea and sclera with a primary feather at the end of its wing. He'd recovered well from surgery, but SHIELD Medical was still slightly concerned that exposure to foreign substances on the bird's wing might cause him to develop Scott Summers Syndrome. This disorder was usually diagnosed by lasers blasting out of the patient's infected eye, but could be spotted early if the primary care physician watched for acute cranio-rectal inversion. Badger-sitting, Fury and Hill reasoned, would serve as an excellent barometer of this particular symptom.
The badgers' earlier SHIELD-assigned agent, Debra Sims, was now back in the field office in Chicago, had sent the sett a Christmas present of a toy Bucky, the University of Wisconsin Badger. The toy danced and sang the Wisconsin fight song when lights near it turned on. The blinking lights on the Christmas tree Andrew had put up in the foaling barn (at eight feet, small, compared to the Tower's) were sufficient to trigger the toy.
The badgers were delighted. A group could usually be found perched in front of the tree, waiting for the lights to trigger the dancing Bucky. Ella, the matriarch of the sett, had begun imitating the toy, and periodically, the badgers could be seen dancing as a group.
Andrew had started calling it badgerobics.
Tony called it a reminder of his first and only experiment with LSD.
"You experimented with Mormonism?" Steve asked.
"No, that's LDS. LSD's the hallucinogen." Phil explained, putting the new shipment of ersatz badger toys from Doctors Foster and Smith down inside one of the stalls. He climbed into the stall to talk to Ella about how the sett was managing in the barn.
"That was unusually far-sighted of you." Steve commented to Tony, checking over the set up for the Tower kits. "How soon was this after Afghanistan?"
"Oh, about negative seventeen years. I nearly ended up taking an extra year on the Ph.D.s because I wasn't sure if I'd been tripping when I got the letter telling me I'd passed my comps." Tony wandered over to the computer.
"Ah." Steve pulled out the food bowls, then ran the answer back through in his head."Wait, negative seventeen? 1991?"
"Yep." Tony checked on the lock-out program he'd had Jarvis install to keep Andrew from over-straining his eyes. It had been only moderately successful. "Hunt, who the hell still reads actual hardcopy books?"
"I do." Andrew said placidly. "The badgers' conversational skills have been growing by leaps, bounds, and Seussian couplets."
"What part of 'limited reading time' didn't process, Agent Hunt?" Phil asked, considerably less amused.
Andrew handed the books in question to Phil. "The part where using Braille counted as using your eyes, sir."
Phil took in the raised print and bumps. "Good thinking."
"Thank you sir."
"Can we just return to the subject of Tony experimenting with hallucinogens?" Steve asked, exasperated.
"'Experiment' implies there was a research question, a dependent variable and an independent variable." Bruce said, looking up from Andrew's chart that SHIELD medical had forwarded to his tablet. "I'm not checking you over out here. There's a perfectly nice kitchen in the main house. Coming?"
"Yessir." Andrew answered, following Bruce back out of the barn.
Steve was still glaring at Tony. "Anything else? A career in the professional Russian Roulette league?"
"Nah, just the large scale building of weapons of mass destruction, semi-pro career as a morally bankrupt manwhore, and open heart surgery in an unsterile pothole environment. You know, usual stuff." Tony answered. "I'm going to take a walk." He got up from the computer and walked out of the barn.
Steve winced and climbed over the wall where Phil was sitting. Noah, Ella's mate, came over, climbed into Steve's lap and shoved his head under Steve's hand.
Steve obligingly started scratching and sighed. "Can you get signs for the land mines?"
Phil shrugged. "Not that I've noticed. But then, I'm the guy who had to turn 40 and make contact with aliens before I owned up to what I wanted." He leaned back against the wall. "At least I got my head on straight, so to speak, before actually dying."
Noah reached out and tapped on the wall. "I always used to bring Ella cluster berries."
"Cluster berries?" Steve asked.
"I believe Noah is referring to holly berries." Jarvis answered, having been networked into the barn when the badgers moved in.
"Thanks, Jarvis. Thanks, Noah, but I was actually asking Phil."
Phil's eyebrows rose and he snickered. "Steve, I'm a guy. Asking me for directions about anything is probably a poor plan. And I know how you feel about proper planning."
Steve's gaze shifted to Phil from Noah, then back to the badger.
"Besides, I've been watching you plan out this assault on Tony's steel-encased heart for months. You don't need my advice." Steve ducked his head and blushed. "So what are you doing still sitting here?"
Steve nudged Noah out of his lap and got up to follow Tony.
Ella climbed out of Phil's lap and went to join Noah. "So, cluster berries, eh? Think they'd be suitable for hedgehog-like lawyers?"
Ella shrugged. "Probably can't hurt," she tapped out.
"Has to beat slippers."